What can I say? After spending thousands of hours in the company of grizzly bears, including 18 years guiding people into the backcountry to experience them, I watched as bears shared their intimate world with us. Bears are just waiting for someone to listen to them, and to hear their truths and their stories. Charlie Russell, a man who understood bears better than anyone I know, once said to me that the only thing that separates him from others, when it comes to bears, is that he listens to them, and he did. I believe we need to listen to them too, not to the stories from people who don’t know these animals or somehow benefit from mistruths about them, but we need to start listening to the bears themselves. A bear’s language is clear, and they do “talk” and tell us what they need. By not listening to them, we get them in trouble and we get in trouble ourselves…
Here is what I have learned about bears so far: they are beautiful, sentient beings who are extremely large in personality, polite, and even empathetic. They also have a keen sense of community, and are not as solo and independent as people have suggested they are. They are peaceful, thoughtful, emotionally intelligent animals who truly love their kids. They are trustworthy, and that is especially true of a mother and her cubs. They have a jolly sense of humour, curiosity and compassion. They are born into a comfort with the human animal and no one knows why. If they become fearful of people, it is often because of the history they have had with people. Fear can promote aggression under the right conditions, therefore the safest forests are the forests where bears do not fear people. Fear promotes an unpredictability in both humans and bears. Our fear of them is their biggest problem. For the safety of all in the future, I believe our understanding and respect for these animals needs to replace the culture of fear that exists around them. Historically it is where our relationship started, and it is where we need to be now.
Throughout my experiences, I discovered that bears can also differentiate perfectly between people and places. How they behave towards one person can depend on the history they have with that one individual. Bears can be very different in how they react towards each of their relationships. They build community with other bears and other animals, and this includes humans. Bears have a great sense of memory and, in detail, remember everything they are told, taught and experience. In other words, they do not generalize as much as people think, and read intention well beyond any animal I know.
Who are grizzly bears, but amazing beings we are graced to share the world with… that’s who.